Many young writers struggle to be decisive in the moments that populate their screenplays. They find it challenging to openly declare and dramatize what a single moment is about. When I push them to do so they almost always say something to the effect of, “I didn’t want to be too obvious,” or, “I didn’t want to be too on the nose.”
This is so common I thought it would worth addressing in its own post:
To begin with, who started the rumor that ‘subtle’ was some kind of goal in and of itself? I can’t think of any film I ever loved where my emotional reaction was, “Yes! It was subtle!”
Honestly. Not one. It was always how the movie made me feel that I remembered.
So why do we do it? Why do we think subtle is some kind of award for our trophy case? We do it because we are watching ourselves write and we are thinking about what the reader thinks about us, the writer.
This is not a good thing.
We want our focus always on evoking an emotional reaction to the story, not on manipulating an intellectual reaction about us. It is a temptation that will kill your writing. Seriously, just kill it. And I know it’s tempting! I have been there. But it is a death spiral to creativity.
This tends to be why it’s so much easier to know what we don’t want our script to be rather than what do want it to be. Such a thing is much safer for our egos, but it’s not good for our writing.
Frankly, it’s just bad storytelling.
First, clarity is vital. Even when the intent is to be unclear and mysterious, it is important that you are very clear that this is your intent. You get no points for being so subtle that you’re vague and diluted. Our job is to communicate that moment to the audience. What elese are we there for?
The worst self-deception we commit is when we tell ourselves a weak choice is actually just us being subtle! So not only have we done a poor job, we’re actually patting ourselves on the back for being high-brow! Bad writing mixed with arrogance. A terrible combination.
Second, being “on the nose” is never really the issue to begin with! That’s a phrase we use to describe the problem, but it’s not the actual problem at all.
Being emotionally insincere is the problem.
It is when a moment is emotionally dishonest that we cringe. You can actually be as on the nose as you want, and if it’s emotionally sincere, the audience won’t even blink.
Nearly every great Hollywood line was “on the nose.” Very few iconic moments were anything near subtle. They were pounded down with a hammer. Why didn’t the audience have a problem with them? Because they were emotionally sincere.
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
“May the Force be with you.”
“Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a damn.”
“Go ahead. Make my day.”
“You complete me.”
ALL of these lines are slam, bang, clenched-fist punches straight on the nose. Why do they work? Because they were emotionally sincere and the stories earned them. That’s why.
Of course a moment can also be emotionally honest and be subtle. But again, that moment doesn’t work because it’s subtle. That moment works because it’s honest. *
Knowing what we don’t want may help us narrow something down, but we never get anywhere with a moment until we know what we do want and we convey that to the audience.
With story structure, the goals are always narrative momentum and maximizing emotional resonance.
With scenes and moments, our goal is unexpected and satisfying emotional honesty. It is nearly impossible to do that if you are indecisive or unclear about what that moment is.
My all-time favorite great Billy Wilder line (and there are many) is, “It can be subtle. As long as it’s obvious.”
After all, If the audience doesn’t know what that moment is about, what exactly is the point of the moment anyway?
* Billy Wilder may have argued that it’s actually not so much being subtle but instead asking the audience to add 2+2. That is, the illusion of subtlety. They think they’re participating, but if everyone in the audience understands a moment perfectly, how subtle are you really being? This is also an excellent subject for another time.